Saints vs. Seahawks: Who Has the Edge at Every Position

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2014

Saints vs. Seahawks: Who Has the Edge at Every Position

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    The New Orleans Saints won their first road playoff game ever on Saturday in Philadelphia as the team squeaked by the Eagles 26-24. The Saints’ reward? A trip back to Seattle to play the Seattle Seahawks.

    New Orleans traveled to Seattle on Dec. 2, and that Week 13 nightmare is something the Saints would love to forget.

    The Saints were held to their lowest point total of the season (seven) in Seattle, and the Seahawks pummeled the Saints by 27 points, the largest margin of defeat the Saints saw all season.

    Unless this team finds a way to make a complete 180 in terms of how it plays in the divisional round of the playoffs compared to Week 13, New Orleans won’t need to make travel arrangements for the NFC Championship Game.

    But in addition to New Orleans finding a way to win on the road last week, the team won without its quarterback Drew Brees shouldering the brunt of the load. The running game showed up for the Saints, and if that group of guys can continue churning yardage on the ground, New Orleans has a shot.

    But do the Saints have the edge in that matchup? What about every matchup on the field?

Saints OL vs. Seahawks DL

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Nothing’s going to be easy Saturday when New Orleans travels to Seattle to face the Seahawks. And while the pressure to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game will be great, quarterback Drew Brees is going to feel a much more real type of pressure.

    Brees is going to have to find a way to deal with Seattle’s powerful pass rush.

    The Seahawks ranked eighth in the league with their 44 sacks this season but only got to Brees once in their Week 13 meeting. The Saints offensive line did a good job of keeping Seattle away from Brees and allowed him to be hit just three times, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    But Seattle will try to up the ante in the playoffs and could see success with defensive ends Chris Clemons and Michael Bennett, along with defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.

    Seattle is able to keep its defensive line somewhat fresh because it can use a rotation of players. Seven linemen saw 20 snaps or more in Seattle’s final regular-season game with Clemons, Bennett and McDonald joined by Cliff Avril as rush specialists that spent close to two-thirds of their snaps attacking the opposing quarterback.

    New Orleans’ offensive line hasn’t been the most stable of units this season, and Brees has paid the price with the larger-than-normal number of hits he’s taken. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), no Saints offensive lineman had a negative grade in last week’s Wild Card Game, but this is still a unit that’s learning to gel, especially with new left tackle Terron Armstead.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

Drew Brees vs. Seahawks Pass Defense

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    When a team goes from worst to first, it’s usually in a conversation about a positive turn of events; a last-place finish one season followed by a trip through the standings all the way to No. 1.

    The New Orleans Saints are going from worst to first this week, and it’s nowhere near a good thing.

    Last week, in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, the Saints had the fortunate situation of playing against the Philadelphia Eagles’ last-place pass defense. New Orleans’ divisional-round game coming up Saturday won’t be as fun for quarterback Drew Brees.

    The Seattle Seahawks allowed just 172 yards passing per game this season and ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Where Philadelphia allowed 4,636 yards through the air this season, Seattle allowed almost 2,000 fewer yards (2,752). Seattle also allowed only 16 touchdown passes through the air compared to Philadelphia’s 25 and picked off 28 passes, nine more than the Eagles’ 19.

    Brees will be facing a much better pass defense on Saturday, a unit he didn’t do well against in Week 13 of the regular season.

    The Seattle defense held Brees to just 147 yards passing, his lowest total of the season and lowest since Week 16 of the 2006 season. On the opposite side of the field from Brees is the league’s best cover corner, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Richard Sherman.

    Sherman allowed a reception for every 18.3 snaps he was the primary man in coverage this season. Since he became a starter in Week 13, Byron Maxwell has been almost just as good. Maxwell ranks ninth in the league by allowing a reception for every 13.2 snaps he’s the primary man in coverage.

    Brees will definitely have his work cut out for him in the divisional round.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

Saints RBs vs. Seahawks Front Seven

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints rushed for 185 yards in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the second-highest rushing total of the season for the guys in black and gold.

    Running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson each averaged over five yards per carry, and Ingram tallied 97 yards and a touchdown while Robinson accumulated 45 yards on the ground. The output was a pleasant surprise for the Saints considering the team had eclipsed the 100-yard mark rushing just five times prior this season.

    In the Saints’ Week 13 game in Seattle, four running backs combined to gain just 43 yards on the ground.

    Seattle’s run defense is ranked seventh in the league and allowed just 101.6 yards per game this season on average. New Orleans only averaged 92.1 yards per game and was near the bottom of the league in rushing yards at No. 25.

    Sure, the wild-card explosion on the ground potentially means good things for the Saints, but the edge in this matchup still goes to the Seahawks.

    Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel anchor a defensive line that’s extremely tough to run against, and linebackers K.J. Wright, Malcolm Smith and Bobby Wagner police the middle of the field.

    It’s safe to say that New Orleans will not be able to pile on the rushing yards in Seattle like it did in Philadelphia. But the Saints must do better in their playoff game than they did in Week 13.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

Saints Receivers vs. Seahawks Secondary

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Just a few slides back, the quality of the Seattle Seahawks cornerbacks was mentioned. Let me refresh your memory:

    On the opposite side of the field from Brees is the league’s best cover corner, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Richard Sherman.

    Sherman allowed a reception for every 18.3 snaps he was the primary man in coverage this season. Since he became a starter in Week 13, Byron Maxwell has almost been just as good. Maxwell ranks ninth in the league by allowing a reception for every 13.2 snaps he’s the primary man in coverage.

    Sherman allowed just one reception in Seattle’s Week 13 meeting with New Orleans, a seven-yard catch by Lance Moore. Sherman faced off against Marques Colston twice and Robert Meachem once and didn’t allow a reception.

    Maxwell was thrown at twice and defended both passes, one thrown toward tight end Jimmy Graham and the other at Meachem.

    Where the Saints found a little success in Week 13 was in the middle of the field, throwing the ball to Graham. Drew Brees threw toward Graham twice while linebacker K.J. Wright was in coverage (completing one pass for 20 yards) and twice at safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas (completing both passes for a total of 34 yards).

    The Saints are going to have to get Graham more involved in the passing game Saturday, and they’re also going to have to find ways to target Colston in the slot. If Colston is on the outside, he’s going to be blanketed by Sherman or Maxwell. But on the inside, he’ll face off at times against a linebacker or safety. These are the matchups New Orleans wants.

    The best idea for the New Orleans passing game will be to leave Sherman and Maxwell on islands on the outside of the field, only testing them occasionally to keep them honest. Then Brees must pepper the middle of the field when he gets Graham and Colston in situations against linebackers and safeties.

    It’s good for the Saints that Colston is more comfortable in the slot and at 6’4” and 225 pounds has the size to compete in the middle of the field, and that Graham is close to unstoppable. But New Orleans won’t be able to live in the middle of field all game, and when Brees goes outside, Sherman and Maxwell may make him pay.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

Seahawks OL vs. Saints DL

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    The offensive line for the Seattle Seahawks didn’t allow quarterback Russell Wilson to get pressured much, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Seahawks quarterbacks (Tarvaris Jackson does have 13 pass attempts) were hurried just 101 times this year. The only offensive line in the NFL to allow fewer hurries was the Green Bay Packers.

    Part of the reason why Wilson likely wasn’t pressured a ton is because he is so elusive with his legs. Over pursuit can cause Wilson to take off and burn teams with his scrambling ability. In some cases, it may be better to contain instead of attack Wilson.

    In reality, Wilson’s scrambling ability is a majority of the reason why he stays clean for the most part.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only one Seattle offensive lineman has a pass-blocking grade above one, right guard J.R. Sweezy at 1.2. There’s no one on this unit that’s terribly adept at pass blocking.

    On the other side of the football, defensive end Cam Jordan is one of the best pass-rush specialists in the business.

    Only Houston’s J.J. Watt had a better pass-rush productivity score among 3-4 defensive ends than Jordan, and no one hurried the quarterback more often than Jordan at 50 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Jordan was held in check in Week 13 with only three hurries and no sacks or quarterback hits. He has the ability and a somewhat favorable matchup against left tackle Russell Okung. Jordan must step up in the divisional round and get after Wilson.

    ADVANTAGE: Saints

Russell Wilson vs. Saints Pass Defense

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    The Seattle Seahawks didn’t have one of the more potent pass offenses in the league this season. At 202.3 passing yards per game, the Seahawks ranked 26th in the NFL and won more with defense and rushing the football.

    The New Orleans Saints, on the other hand, were very good at limiting opposing teams through the air. The Saints ranked second in the NFL by allowing just 194.1 passing yards per game. Only three times this season did New Orleans allow a quarterback to throw for 300 yards or more.

    But a lot of that had to do with Keenan Lewis, who has been a shutdown corner for the Saints all season.

    Lewis ranked in the top six among cover corners in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Not only did this allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to leave him on an island and shift cover schemes elsewhere, but since New Orleans regularly got pressure on the quarterback with four or five guys, there were typically five defensive backs on the field to help in coverage. With Lewis not needing any help, that left four defensive backs to cover just more than half the field.

    But Lewis suffered a head injury Saturday in Philadelphia and did not return to the game. If he’s unable to play against the Seahawks, Seattle will have a much easier time throwing the football.

    With Lewis playing, this matchup would be a huge advantage for the Saints. Without Lewis, New Orleans still like has an advantage, but it’s a small one at best.

    ADVANTAGE: Saints

Seahawks RBs vs. Saints Front Seven

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    There’s really not much Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch can’t do. He led the league with 12 touchdowns by a running back this season and rushed for 1,257 yards. He was also one of only two running backs to carry the ball 300 or more times.

    Lynch is a workhorse.

    But Lynch didn’t have the best day against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13. In fact, Lynch’s 43 yards was his second-worst performance of the season. He averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, his worst per-carry average in 2013.

    The Saints focused on Lynch in Week 13 and forced quarterback Russell Wilson to beat them. Wilson was successful.

    It’s hard to imagine the Saints not attempting to shut down Lynch again in the divisional round of the playoffs. But more attention is going to have to be paid to Wilson. That’s the window Lynch will need.

    The Saints rank 25th in the league in rushing yards allowed at 92.1 per game. Shutting down Lynch in Week 13 was good game-planning, but it’s unlikely that a defense that’s allowed every team this season to gain at least 75 yards on the ground could hold Lynch back twice.

    Don’t forget that the Saints' best non-lineman run defender, safety Kenny Vaccaro, will not play again this season because of a broken ankle, and linebacker Parys Haralson, who could have a torn pectoral muscle, according to Fox Sports analyst Mike Garafolo, might not play either. Haralson is another non-lineman defenseman that’s good against the run.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

Seahawks Receivers vs. Saints Secondary

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    One player is going to make so much of the difference in who wins this matchup, and he may not even play.

    If the Saints are forced to play without cornerback Kennan Lewis, who did not return to the game Saturday in Philadelphia after an apparent head injury, Corey White will be forced to either cover the Seahawks’ best receiver as Lewis typically does (highly unlikely), or White will be the top corner on the field, and that’s not a situation the Saints want to see.

    If Seattle wide receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin face a Saints secondary without Lewis, expect the duo to have a better-than-normal day. White has been hit or miss (mostly miss as of late) this season and is normally picked on by opposing quarterbacks, especially since he was forced into a starting role in Week 12.

    Cornerback Rafael Bush has better cover numbers than White, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but neither can truly stop Tate or Baldwin.

    Seattle tight end Zach Miller caught 33 passes this season and had five touchdown receptions. He had five catches for 86 yards and a score against New Orleans in Week 13, his best game of the season.

    Kenny Vaccaro was tasked with covering Miller in Week 13, and he did a good job. But Vaccaro is out for the remainder of the season with a broken ankle. Linebacker David Hawthorne was beat by Miller for a 60-yard reception, and linebacker Ramon Humber gave up the touchdown catch.

    It would be nice if New Orleans could offer the linebacker corps some help covering Miller, but with Vaccaro gone, and possibly Lewis too, the secondary may be too depleted to offer much.

    If Lewis plays, and this is why he’s the X-factor right now, the advantage shifts back to New Orleans (even though Lewis had a bad game against Seattle in Week 13). He’ll cover Tate, which will allow White and Bush to get back to their normal coverage assignments.

    ADVANTAGE: Seahawks

The Final Tally

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    By my count here, the final tally has Seattle ahead 6-2.

    Saints OL vs. Seahawks DL              X
    Drew Brees vs. Seahawks Pass Defense             X
    Saints RBs vs. Seahawks Front Seven             X
    Saints Receivers vs. Seahawks Secondary             X
    Seahawks OL vs. Saints DL             X 
    Russell Wilson vs. Saints Pass Defense            X 
    Seahawks RBs vs. Saints Front Seven             X
    Seahawks Receivers vs. Saints Secondary             X

    But individual matchups are only a part of the scenario in a football game, and in playoff football, momentum and determination (both huge team-driven attributes) are magnified.

    The Saints were embarrassed on Dec. 2 in Seattle, and I have to believe that head coach Sean Payton, and quarterback Drew Brees to a certain extent, won’t let that happen again.

    The Saints finally found a way to win on the road in the Wild Card Round, and I expect those winning ways to continue.